Sunday, December 9, 2018

Chinese Researcher Defends Gene-Edited Twins -The World Must be Wrong

Physicians confront alcoholism regularly.   Indeed, nearly every day on my hospital rounds, I treat patients who are suffering the ravages of alcohol abuse.   While these patients may have a genetic predisposition toward alcohol abuse, or faced other personal pressures and demons, ultimately the disease is initiated by a person who made an unfortunate decision.  I do not judge these individuals as their doctor, any more than I do my hepatitis C patients who contracted the virus as a result of intravenous drug use.   But, when are examining the causes of these maladies, personal responsibility and accountability must be considered.  In fact, failure to do so will frustrate our efforts to prevent various injurious addictions. 

Physicians and others have heard the vignette when an alcoholic denies his addiction despite that every other person in his life feels otherwise.  “They are all wrong,” he states emphatically.

'I can quit anytime.'

There are many examples of individuals who stand their ground despite popular disapproval.  This might represent truly noble behavior and high principle when a person defies public opinion by doing the right thing.  This is called leadership.  More commonly, when a person lurches forward in defiance of the opinions and advice of experts and others, it is not leadership, but ignorance, hubris and arrogance. 

Recently, a Chinese researcher announced that a set of twins were born after altering their genes so that they would be protected against infection with the HIV virus.  The scientist announced that other births with gene alterations would be arriving soon.  I’ll not relate the scientific details, much of which is beyond my knowledge and understanding.  But, readers need to be aware that these genetic changes will not only affect the specific individuals but would be passed onto their offspring.  If true, it would constitute a permanent and heritable change in a person’s genetic code.  This is to be distinguished from utilizing genetic science to treat a single patient only, a more ethically palatable procedure.

I’ll leave aside the obvious fears that such a wanton ethical breach generates.  Even a lay person can appreciate the potential dangers at play here.  Scientists and ethicists could give us a fuller account of what is at risk.  And they themselves would admit: ‘Imagine what we don’t know’. 

The global ethical community, including in China, expressed opprobrium against this arrogant, dangerous and rogue action.   It is rare for any of us to witness an issue that unifies people, organizations and nations that are so often in conflict.  

The Chinese researcher in the face of worldwide outrage continues to defend his work.  In other words, the world is wrong. 

When there is responsible opposition to our own views and beliefs, shouldn’t we consider that we might be wrong?


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